Will Turkey Drag America Into Its Kurdish War?

"The Turkish-Kurdish conflict could turn the NATO ally from an asset into a serious liability for the United States."

Even the best metaphor fails to describe the insanity of Turkey’s attack on the militant Kurdish group PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) along with ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham). From 1984 until 2013, the Turkish state fought the PKK in an inconclusive conflict that claimed 40,000 lives. Although the new cycle of violence is a replay of the same dumb conflict, Turkey, much like in Albert Einstein’s definition, expects different results.

Fighting the PKK at the same time as ISIS is not only crazy, it is also detrimental to the interests of Turkey and the United States.

Turkey’s latest horror show started on July 20th when an ISIS suicide bomber killed 32 youth activists and injured another 104 in the Turkish town of Suruç. The young folks were headed to the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane for aid work. The PKK accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and their Justice and Development Party (AKP) of harboring sympathies for ISIS, and began attacking Turkish military and police forces.

Meanwhile, ISIS picked up the pace. On July 23, fighters of the self-anointed caliphate killed a Turkish soldier on the Syrian border. Ankara launched airstrikes against both ISIS and PKK and opened up its airbases to the United States in support of anti-ISIS operations.

At one level, Turkey’s simultaneous attack against the two groups is not surprising. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu have stated repeatedly that the PKK and the Assad regime—not ISIS or other extremist groups—are the greatest danger to their country. At times, Turkish officials established moral equivalence between PKK and ISIS. Until last month, Turkey refused to participate in U.S.-led operations against ISIS because they did not target Assad’s forces.

But to lump the PKK (as well as its Syrian-affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units [YPG]) together with the religious extremists of ISIS will be counterproductive for the Turks and their American ally.

That’s not because ISIS poses as great a risk to Ankara as the PKK. Quite the opposite: with some time, effort, and yes, bloodshed, Turkey could stabilize the Syrian border and track down and neutralize ISIS cells inside its borders. After all, Turkey is the second largest military power in NATO.

Same results

But numbers and firepower seldom guarantee success.

The most troubling element in Turkey’s war against the PKK is that it violates the basic tenets of strategic thinking. Forget about Sun Tzu and the importance of going to war only after creating the conditions for victory. Never mind Clausewitz and war being a rational exercise to organize chance and violence for tangible and attainable political objectives. And pay no heed to Bismarck and his warnings about fighting two-front wars.

Ankara’s (re-)militarization of its PKK problem ignores a simple fact: The PKK is an outgrowth of the Kurdish question, which is fundamentally a political, social, and legal matter. For much of the 20th century, Turkish Kurds were denied their cultural and social rights. The PKK sprung out of Turkey’s repressive military regime of 1980-83.

For much of the period from 1984 through the mid-2000s, the Turkish state followed a logic similar to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s “metrics” (read: body counts) during the Vietnam War. With no regard to the qualitative aspects of warfare, McNamara had postulated that once North Vietnamese and Vietcong casualties reached a point where they could not be replenished, the United States and South Vietnam would prevail.

Likewise, Turkish military and civilian leaders focused on the number of PKK militants they killed (a majority of the 40,000 dead) at the height of the conflict in the 1990s, but they could never explain why the conflict would never end.

The current flare-up looks eerily similar to the 1990s. Today, as in the past, Turkish forces hit PKK militants who attack Turkish personnel only to be pounded in return. This feedback loop renders a political solution to the Kurdish question—the only method in which this conflict could be resolved—less likely.

Even from a purely military standpoint, Turkish airstrikes against ISIS and PKK could prove ineffective. In an interview with this author, Dr. Henri Barkey argued that Turkish airstrikes “will not be that effective because it’s not possible to do anything serious without a ground component.”